Oral Histories Capture the History of Our Community

Presented to the Chevy Chase Citizens’ Association at its Nov. 13, 2018, meeting by History Chevy Chase DC Board Members Cate Atkinson and Joan Janshego


I’d like to thank Kate and the rest of the Chevy Chase Citizens’ Association for inviting us here this evening to explain some of the work we do. We'll give you a rundown of how the century-old community of Chevy Chase got its start and talk about how recording oral histories is a way to capture the essence of the place.. We'll explain what an oral history is, how we do them, why it’s worth the effort, and some of the treasures you’ll find in them. Then we will hear from a panel of real-life oral history interviewees who have been kind enough to come tonight to chat about what the experience was like for them.

First an overview of what we do: Historic Chevy Chase DC is an all-volunteer body dedicated to preserving the architecture and social history of our community. Specifically, we support research, assist historical preservation efforts, invite guest speakers a couple of times each year to shed light on history that intersects with our community, promote an annual historical walking tour of Chevy Chase, publish articles on issues relevant to the area -- all in addition to recording and transcribing oral histories of longtime residents.

Chevy Chase was slowly converted from farmland to become one of the nation’s first electric streetcar suburbs. It was the vision of Nevada Senator Francis Newlands and his Chevy Chase Land Company that is responsible for the great bones that make up our slice of Northwest Washington DC -- distinctive architecture, lovely willow oaks shading the streets, and a vital commercial thoroughfare known from the start as “The Avenue.”

As you know, Newlands’ planned development straddled the DC-Maryland border. On the DC side, development started in 1907 when the first house went up on Oliver Street, on the very spot of the old 1722-era manor house build by Gen. Joseph Belt. That house had lived through the French and Indian War, The Revolution, The War of 1812, and the Civil War. Despite all that, it was reportedly in pretty good shape when it was dismantled around 1907. In fact, the old bricks were repurposed to build the foundation and chimney of the new house.Those bricks have witnessed a lot of history.

But change came to Chevy Chase, and by the 1930s the DC-side grid was filled in on either side of Connecticut Avenue. By the 1950s, development had gobbled up the woods and cow pastures all the way east to Rock Creek Park. While the street trees were busy growing,  generations graduated from E.V. Brown, then Lafayette, Deal, and Wilson. Many who lived here in the '40s and '50s are still here today, and among their memories is a way of life that is already gone.

Oral histories provide a way to capture that memory. By interviewing people and asking them to recall the past, we can create a public record of history unique to one neighborhood or group of people. Oral histories differ from memoirs or biographies in that they give us a way to look at how people lived and experienced events or places -- things that, during the time they were experienced might have seemed too commonplace to be worth mentioning. But they are details of daily life ingrained in our past that helped make us who we area. And when they are lost to memory, they are truly gone.

Since 2010 HCCDC has completed more than 31 oral histories of individuals -- a few of them are of couples or multiple family members - plus a number of videotaped oral histories involving graduates of Woodrow Wilson High School. They are archived on our website historicchevychasedc.org. By putting these histories on our website, we are giving them a wider audience as well as providing historians with direct access to unique information.

Our subjects are people who have lived or worked in Chevy Chase DC long enough to have experienced history here. There are no special criteria as to whom we select, as each of us brings unique perspectives to the archival record. Generally, oral history interviews take two to three hours, and are usually conducted in the person’s home. We use a simple tape recorder and bring along a camera to snap a picture. A two-hour interview usually takes 10 or more hours to transcribe. We then give the written transcript to the interviewee to go over and we make requested changes. We ask our interviewees to sign a release form that gives us permission to post the now-edited transcription. And they retain the rights to make changes if they see a need to.

While we generally have a list of questions we use as a guide, the interview is informal and casual -- we start off by asking names, date and place of birth, and how you wound up in Chevy Chase. Often we peel back further -- whose child you were and where your parents came from, what type of upbringing they had. And then we move on from there, asking about early memories  -- of your street, schools, neighbors, churches, shops, events, neighborhood folklore, and what changes your have observed over time. We ask about professions and experiences and rights of passage.

Most of the oral histories we've collected were done by Joan Janshego and the HCCDC president, Carl Lankowski. Their passion for collecting these stories is obvious and makes for fascinating reading.

Take the history of Dallas Dean, age 70 when her interview was done in 2011. She spoke of having lived her entire life in a stone house at Rittenhouse and Nebraska. Her roots were local -- even her great-grandfather was a Washingtonian who made and sold cigars down on E Street in the last 1880s. Her grandfather bought 40 acres of land in Chevy Chase in the early 1900s, when it was still woods. When her father married, he was given a plot of land and he built that stone house in 1938.

If she looked toward 27th Street, Dallas recalled, she saw a cabin where an African American family lived. That was torn down in the ‘40s. She remembers another neighbor, Bill Montgomery, who build a mansion on high ground and called it Knollwood -- later, he left the property to the Army and now it’s a continuing care facility for military families. The stone manor house and its burnished wood interior is still used for social events. She also remembers when the Russian Embassy made plans to take over the old 16-acre Bonnie Brae estate on Oregon Avenue -- until until Barnaby Woods residents protested. The townhouses on Unicorn Lane are there now.

Or take Barbara Dresner, who had already lived in Chevy Chase nearly 60 years we interviewed her. Barbara moved to Washington from Pennsylvania at age 19, after two years of college, taking a train and finding room and board for $50 a month on 16th Street. She was among the throngs of bright young women recruited in the early war years to handle secretarial work. She could take dictation at 120 words per minute.  She was assigned to the Manhattan Project at the Office of Scientific Research and Development, then housed in the Carnegie building on Broad Branch Road. She intersected daily with brilliant scientists, many of whom she only later realized what vital roles they played in the war, like Dr. Alexander Flemming, who developed penicillin that was being given only to servicemen at the time. She recalls trying to figure out how to write the word in shorthand.

As a secretary, she did anything from guard top-secret codes to serve coffee. One day, while serving  tea to Gen. Eisenhower, she thought to herself, “He really thinks he is something else” and when he later asked her to go to dinner, she shrugged him off despite all those stars on his uniform. A married man in his 50s was not of interest to her. She also recalls the V-J day, when she was asked to open a safe that only she had the combination to. Dr. Robert Oppenheimer was there and he, like everyone else, was in shock after the atomic bomb was dropped. She remembers he kept saying we should share the atomic secrets with the world to prevent it from being used again. She spent the next 10 days holed up with Dr. Oppenheimer taking dictation. After the war she married a Jew, who her mother refused to acknowledge at first, and they bought a house in Chevy Chase in 1956 -- and 56 years later she was telling us about it all.

Judith Adams was 91 at time of her interview last year. She had moved to Chevy Chase in 1961 when her husband, a California newspaper editor, was recruited to work for the fledgling Peace Corps. She recalls that the neighborhood was full of families who worked for the government or the media. They would have dinner parties where food was not the focus but conversation was. She recalls it as a time when no one locked their back doors and no one hired landscapers -- teenagers did all the work to earn pocket money. Kids changed into play clothes after school then ran outside to play, returning home only in time for dinner. People dressed up to go shopping downtown. She saw how the the tumult of the Civil Rights era brought palpable changes to Chevy Chase -- crime crept in, summer programs were created to keep teenagers out of trouble, and many abandoned the local schools out of fear and racial disharmony.

Allen Beach was 78 and had spent all but 8 years of his life in Chevy Chase at the time he was interviewed. He had vivid memories of Victory gardens, rationing and blackout drills during the 1940s. During those days, kids at Wilson High School rubbed shoulders with Congressmen’s kids and other Washington bigwigs. Allen’s family history is a fascinating tale that you’ll have to read for yourself. His forebears had immigrated to America just 10 years after the Mayflower, but in an odd twist, his grandmother moved back to Germany around the turn of the century, married a German officer, and stayed until their livelihoods were wiped out in the First World War. In 1925, when his mother was only 15, they set sail back to the States. Though impoverished, his mother quickly learned English and graduated from Stanford in 1930. There she met and married Allen’s father, an economist. She eventually became a “computer” at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism -- now the Carnegie geophysics lab. His father’s side of the family has an equally vivid life journey.

Ralph Benson, at 73, was born at Georgetown Hospital and moved to Chevy Chase around 1936. He remembered that in the 1940s neighbors bought out a mixed-race couple around Pinehurst Circle because they didn’t want them to live among them. Back then, you could see cows and horses at the northern end of Western Avenue. At age 11 he took his first date to a movie at the Uptown Theater followed by fountain drinks at People’s Drugs on McKinley, but decided that was too expensive and didn’t date again for years.

Bernice Degler was 90 in 2013 when her oral history was done shortly before she died. She had lived on Chevy Chase Parkway for the previous 48 years.She was an African American whose family have moved to Washington during the Great Migration. She graduated from Minor Teachers’ College at a time when only 5% of Americans had college degrees and went on to earn a Master’s in Spanish language and literature from the National University of Mexico. She and her architect husband were an interracial couple when they moved to Chevy Chase in 1966, and she remembers people being curious about her but not unkind. A member of All Souls Unitarian, she worked with the Rev. James Reeb, a white assistant minister who in 1965 went to Selma to march for voter rights and was killed. “Don’t go, don’t go!” she remembers telling him because he had small children. In the early years she stayed at home to raise her kids, a common practice that she said made it hard for the mailman to get down the street because “Everybody had something to say.” She was politically active, ringing doorbells with legendary DC Councilmember Polly Shakelton, champion of Home Rule, and was herself an ANC 3G commissioner in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Sally Epstein was 87 in 2013 and had lived in Chevy Chase for 52 years at the time of her interview. Her life has been spent in pursuit of great art and social justice with organizations such as Planned Parenthood, Experiment in International Living, the Peace Corps and global population control efforts. She has amassed one of the world’s largest private collections of prints by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch -- most of you are familiar with The Scream -- and many have toured her home to see her treasures. As a younger woman in the 1970s she conducted more than 60 oral histories of people who knew him or were subjects of his work. All of it is bequeathed to the National Gallery of Art, and every year, she says, she has to select three or four prints to send to the Smithsonian. “That’s always hard to decide which of your children you are going to send off permanently into the wider world,” she said. On her father’s side Sally is a Gamble -- her grandfather founded the company Procter & Gamble. Her maternal grandmother was a sculptress. While in Paris, her young grandmother wrote a letter back home saying she wanted to apprentice with a sculptor called Rodin, but her parents thought that since he wasn’t married it would be improper for her to do so. So she didn’t.

Did you know we also had a Ph.D astronomer as a neighbor -- who also was a woman? And not just any astronomer. Vera Rubin, who had lived with her husband on McKinley Street since 1957, was the expert asked to come down to check the planned Albert Einstein memorial for accuracy. She was the the first woman scientist that the Carnegie Institute of Washington, begun in 1904, ever hired. She recalls a physics teacher in high school who, upon learning that she’d won a scholarship to Vassar, said that as long as she stayed away from science she’d do OK. In her oral history, done in 2011, she talks about the path her Russian grandfather made to New York as a glove maker and and how her grandmother immigrated at age 16 by herself, nearly starving to death because the food on the ship wasn’t kosher. Apples saved her.

And there are many others on our Oral Histories page -- there’s not enough time to talk about them all. Jeffrey Gildenhorn, whose 50-year career ignited so many businesses along Connecticut Avenue including the American City Diner -- he talks about having to look hard to find someone in 1988 who still knew how to build an authentic diner since that had gone out in the 1950s. There is Mort Needleman, who fondly remembers Chico, the Lafayette tennis instructor who lived quietly in the school basement and eked out a living giving people tennis lessons for 25 cents. When he got sick, the neighborhood banded together to get him medical help. Hundreds attended his mass at Blessed Sacrament. Allie Felder, a resident of Barnaby Woods since 1968, had a Ph.D. in agriculture and rural society. His great grandfather had been a slave, and despite all he had accomplished, he found himself being arrested for loitering in Georgetown one evening after leaving a friends’ house. And Loretta Kiron whose husband was a Holocaust survivor who was deported to Auschwitz. The Nazis had him digging out rocks with his hands and when the Allies came, the Germans marched the inmates to a barn they then set on fire. Her husband managed to get out through a hole made by the explosions, his clothes in flames. He was able to crawl to a forest and got away. He was the only survivor of his family - both parents, two brothers and a sister all killed.

These Chevy Chase residents people are the keepers of our history, so it’s an important job to continue seeking them out.

Let’s turn this over now, and look at these histories from the interviewees perspective. I’ll briefly introduce our panel.

Connie Povich was born in a house on the corner of 33rd and Rittenhouse, but has lived in 3 other houses in Chevy Chase. She has memories of going to dinner with her family at the Purple Iris on Rittenhouse -- although rumored to be a speakeasy with shady dealings, Connie never saw any of that. She has strong memories of World War II, blackouts every third Wednesday during which her father, a warden, would take flashlights and check houses for light seepage. Students collected newspapers for the war effort and each class had a vegetable garden and took home their produce on Fridays. Mothers wrapped bandages for injured soldiers and people took in boarders since there was a housing shortage.

Connie married David Povich, whose father was a well-known Washington Post sports writer, Shirley Povich.

Both Tim Hannapel and his aunt, Emily Swartz, were involved in the burgeoning Neighborhood Planning Councils’ summer works programs for teens that were started after the ‘68 MLK riots -- Tim as a teenage participant and Emily as a director. In an oral history done of them in 2016, they talked about the dearth of programs in the ‘70s and ‘80s for teenagers -- there were no athletic programs for teens, few fields to play in, no swimming pools or other diversions. The NPCs were dedicated to building community and giving teenagers something productive to do. They led to a wide variety of projects all over the city such as dance camps, music workshops, horticulture, jobs programs, working with animals at the Zoo, building stuff -- all kinds of things. In the Chevy Chase area they included a concert series at Fort Reno Park, an archeological dig at the site of the African American neighborhood of Reno City that was cleared to make way for Deal and Wilson, and the undertaking of noted historical research projects called Footsteps, Origins I, and Origins II.

And lastly, we have Patty Myler, whose family goes back many generations in the Washington area -- her father’s side has roots in St. Mary’s County since 1643. Born at the end of the war, she recalls her mother telling of how they’d save their gas money so they could make the summer trek to Rehoboth Beach. There, they had to turn off the outdoor lights and pull down dark shades because of the possibility of enemy subs lurking off the coast. Patty went to Blessed Sacrament for elementary school with 55 kids to a classroom built for 25. To control that many kids, it was required that hands were neatly folded on desks at all times.

But she also has fond memories of Lafayette playground where she played as a child, going home only for dinner and bathroom breaks, just as her children did. As an adult, she was director at the Lafayette playground where she ran a summer camp and a program for preschool children. She hired about 300 young kids in the neighborhood to assist with the kids. Most of them went on to become accomplished adults. Some of them told her that it was the best job they ever had.